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shameless pleading

In droves

Walking my cow. Why?

Dear Word Detective: Is there not a phrase “coming out in droves” or do I have “droves” wrong? And if “droves” is indeed correct, what does it mean? — Ron Burkey, Jr.

Ah, the sound of a man doubting his own sanity. I know it well. Every so often I’ll find myself typing or saying something that makes perfect sense to me, but which fails, for some reason, to mean anything useful on Planet Earth. A few years ago I convinced myself that I had grown up using the word “stinch,” meaning “to be stingy.” No such word (except as an obsolete 15th century form of “stanch”), according to every dictionary I own. Apparently I had been combining “stint” (which does mean “restrict”) with “stingy” or “skimp.” But at least I wasn’t alone; the impetus for my investigation was a question from a reader also convinced that “stinch” was an accepted word.

In the case of “droves,” however, you’re on solid ground. “Droves” is not only a real word, it’s a very popular one. Google News at the moment lists more than 2,000 news stories using the word (e.g., “New Yorkers leaving the state in droves,” AP, 8/02/11). And you don’t even have to be human to qualify as a “drove,” provided there are enough of you (“Toadlets cross Chilliwack roads in droves” and “Stink bugs showing up in droves” being two recent headlines).

“Drove,” of course, is familiar to us as the past tense of the verb “to drive” (“Having nothing better to do, Bob drove to Cleveland and almost immediately regretted it”). “Drive” as a verb, derived from Germanic roots, originally carried the sense of forcing people or animals to move forward by pushing or threatening from behind (a sense that was somewhat weakened in the 16th century by the adoption of “drive” to mean “operate a vehicle pulled by horses, oxen, etc.”).

“Drove” is a noun derived from the verb “to drive,” and when it first appeared in Old English, it meant simply “the act of driving or herding” a herd of livestock, flock of sheep, etc. By the 12th century, however, “drove” had come to be applied to the group of animals that was being “driven.” Eventually, “drove” expanded yet further, and was used to mean a large group of animals, people or other entities, moving together as a group for whatever reason, not necessarily because the group was being “driven” by force (“Singapore fans turned up in droves to watch the Lions reach the third round,” 7/28/11). Although “drove” in the singular now means “a large group of animals, people or things,” the word is almost always used in the plural form “droves.”

While “driver,” the agent noun formed on the verb “to drive,” has developed a wide range of literal and figurative meanings, from golf clubs to economic mechanisms (“Consumer spending, a key driver of the economy, did not grow at all in the second quarter,” AFP, 8/06/11), the agent noun of the verb “to drove,” which appeared in the 17th century meaning “to herd,” hasn’t changed much at all. A “drover” is a person who “drives,” in the original “force from behind” sense, a herd of animals, usually cattle, to market (“Scores of highly born and bred men live by droving cattle,” 1881). The cowboys that figure so prominently in US history, TV and movies were, in many cases, “drovers” who spent their days convincing “droves” of reluctant cattle to march to market.

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